The Darpa Grand Challenge was supposed to offer a first glimpse of the robots that will transform the battlefields of the future.
With $1m as a carrot, the US top-secret defence agency asked the cream of the nation’s engineers to come up with an unmanned vehicle able to travel 150 miles across the desert in less than 10 hours.
Sadly, the event soon degenerated into an episode of the cartoon Wacky Races with entrants strewn across the Californian landscape. They broke down, they caught fire, they flipped over, they got stuck halfway up hills and in one case became tangled up in barbed wire. The best of the bunch got seven miles.
What does this tell us? The serious lesson is that the US is some way short (143 miles, to be exact) of achieving the type of soldier-free war zone that has recently established itself in the popular imagination.
With US personnel dying daily in Iraq, the idea of robots taking over hazardous combat missions from human soldiers is an easy way to sell the benefits of military research to the American public.
The US is said to nurse ambitions to replace a significant chunk of its manned combat vehicles with robots within a decade. The Grand Challenge, despite Darpa’s best efforts to put a brave face on it, demonstrates that human drivers will be needed for many years yet.
On a brighter note, the event demonstrated the indefatigable optimism of the engineers involved, most of who have vowed to lick their wounds and return for another bash despite giving up years of their lives to the failed attempts.
After surveying the wreckage, the vehicles’ developers apparently partied defiantly 150 miles away in Nevada at a place called Buffalo Bill’s Casino, next to the finish line their robots would never see.
They will probably take little consolation from some ridiculously overblown attempts to spin the outcome as a triumph. One technology research firm even suggested that the seven miles travelled by the vehicle from Carnegie Mellon university will go down in history alongside the first flight of the Wright Brothers. This sort of patent nonsense aside, the Grand Challenge engineers can at least say they took part in something unique.
And they will no doubt grudgingly agree with the final conclusion that we can draw from the event – the most efficient technology for getting 150 miles across a desert is still, for the time being, a camel.